Friday, January 18, 2008

State of the states

When Americans think about "government", their thoughts tend to focus on the national government, with local (municipal, that is) government usually a weak second. Pick up any daily newspaper and see how much front-page space goes to the presidency or to the Congress (or even the Supreme Court).

Often lost in all this editorially directed shuffle are state governments, though their importance in the daily lives of citizens probably exceeds that of the federal government by a good bit. States school our children, control access to our roads (via driver's licenses), and a lot more. We should pay more attention to them.

In discussions of America's federal system, the states are often referred to as "50 laboratories" in which governmental schemes can be tried out. That's rather a patronizing view, as if to say that the Big Boys only play with tested and approved toys, while the Kids get to play with those toys first as a destruction test.

The reality is that for a long time now, states have led the federal government in many ways. Though it is a curiosity of our nation that many states have remarkably sharp political divides (think of the difference between, say, San Francisco and Los Angeles, or New York City and Albany), they are still smaller and more nearly uniform than a 300-million-person nation, and there are fewer constituencies pressing for a voice. It is, in short, easier to get meaningful things done.

Mind, in Neandertal states, that means it's easier to get bad things done, which is probably the chief argument for having a federal government that deals with more than just national defence. But the good things many states do often do not get the attention they deserve.

One example, which brought these thoughts to mind, is a recent Time article titled "What Washington Can learn From Montana". As the article notes, this often right-leaning state is tackling both the effects of global warming and its causes, in a way that puts the federal government to shame. (Well, that's en reportorial error right there: nothing ever puts anyone or anything in Washington to shame--they can't spell the word.)

We see this elsewhere, as with California (and, as is too often forgotten an entire consortium of states totalling about one-third of the nation) making their own, seriously stricter automobile-emissions laws. Another example is the large and still-growing number of states rejecting Washington's abstinence-only sex education in favor of state programs that actually work. The list could easily be extended.

The mainstream media ever more control Americans' perceptions of many things, from the significance of steroids to the consequences of illegal immigration, even though the perceptions the MSM feed are wildly at variance with the facts of the matters at issue. But perhaps most notable is their distortion of our understandings of government. When one hears of this party or that taking or losing "control", it invariably refers to the presidency, the House, the Senate, or some mix. Only very occasionally, as a sort of afterthought, does one get even a count of governorships held by the parties, much less of state legislative bodies.

Right now, there are 28 Democratic and 22 Republican governors. Of those, 11 seats are up for election this year, 9 with incumbents running and 2 open.

Whether as cause and effect or simply as a barometer, the party that controls governorships at the time has historically had an advantage in presidential contests.

There's a nice article at Stateline on the prospects for the 2008 elections, considering not only governorships but control of state legislative bodies. There's also a more interesting map--one that shows not only party control but the strength of the win in the last election--at the always interesting web site.

Larry Sabato's famous Crystal Ball political-analysis web site has this map of the 2008 governorship elections:

If you want to keep up with state-related issues, keep an eye on stateline, and also on its parent organization, the Pew Trusts, whose State Policy and Performance page is informative.

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